Friday, January 15, 2016

Debate Recap: Republicans Agree That Trump's For Real

Now that academic winter break is coming to an end (spring classes here at BC start next week!), Honest Graft returns from its hiatus with a look at Thursday night's Republican debate. As usual, I'll leave questions about which candidate "won" or "lost" to others and focus on what the candidates' behavior reveals about their strategic calculations and views of the race. Presidential nominations are among the most procedurally and strategically complex aspects of American politics, which makes them among the most fascinating. I dare say that this particular election confirms that nobody—not even political scientists!—has this process completely figured out.

Last night's debate was characterized by a series of one-on-one exchanges between candidates that clearly demonstrated where the lines of conflict currently stand. Trump and Cruz, now fighting for first place in Iowa, attacked each other early in the proceedings. Trump's recent suggestions that Cruz is constitutionally ineligible to be president guaranteed that the issue would come up, giving Cruz an opportunity to air grievances of his own in response. Among Cruz's charges was that Trump was only starting to raise the question now because Cruz was gaining on him in Iowa—an accusation to which Trump, whose open candor about his obsession with the results of public opinion polls is among his most characteristic features, readily pled guilty. But Trump was ready to throw how-dare-you indignation right back at Cruz over the Texan's dismissal of his "New York values," invoking 9/11 in a politically adept manner that suggested he was prepared for Cruz's attack.

Marco Rubio, meanwhile, continued his two-front battle against both Cruz and Chris Christie, accusing the former of inconsistency on immigration (and of promoting an unfair tax plan) and the latter of RINO squishiness on an array of issues. Jeb Bush and John Kasich did not engage directly with each other, but both attempted to position themselves as the thoughtful alternatives to Trump (leading to yet another half-hearted Bush attack on Trump that failed to draw much blood, seemingly a staple of the Republican debates this election). And then there was Ben Carson, who was mercifully left alone by the other candidates as he continued his quietly fading campaign.

Trump's persistent lead in the polls has been dismissed by some skeptics as a mostly an artifact of his superior name recognition at this stage of the race, or, alternatively, as a product of excessive media coverage of his various hijinks. But the behavior of the other major candidates demonstrates that they believe Trump's support to be based on a genuine attraction among Republican primary voters to his campaign message and policies. The dark rhetoric about an America in danger of disappearing forever, the ad hominem attacks on Barack Obama as a "child" and vows to "kick his rear end," the warnings about the threats posed by immigrants in general and Muslim refugees in particular—these are all elements of Trumpism that have increasingly been adopted by the other Republicans running for president. Whether or not Trump himself ultimately runs a strong race once the actual voting begins, it is already clear that he will have a visible effect on the 2016 election.